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Of all the spirits produced in the United States of America, whiskey is surely king, and no state is as closely associated with this spirit as Kentucky. The history of Kentucky whiskey stretches back to the beginnings of the 18th century, when Irish settlers in the state began distilling the corn and grains they were growing into spirits, partly as a way of using up their crops, and partly as a sweet reminder of the home they’d left behind. Over the following decades, the whiskey industry boomed, as the country as a whole developed a taste for Bourbon, and many of the distilleries we know and love today were first founded.
Kentucky Bourbon is now very much an international spirit, enjoyed in every corner of the globe by those seeking out authenticity and originality in their whiskey. In 1968, the American Congress officially recognized Kentucky Bourbon whiskey by declaring it a ‘distinctive product of the United States’, and new laws and regulations sprung up as a way of protecting and preserving the reputation the state and the spirit enjoyed. These included the rule that Kentucky Bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years (with many aged for a great deal longer) in white oak barrels, and contain absolutely nothing other than a fine grain mash, yeast and water.
Rye Whiskey is enjoying something of a renaissance of late, with sales rocketing in recent years thanks to a growing interest in strong, unique flavors, and small, independent distilleries. Rye Whiskey is a drink which is all about powerful, bold flavors, with plenty of spice and bitterness when drunk young. Aged, however, it takes on a deep set of subtle notes which are beautifully mellow and complex, and becomes a fascinating example of what whiskey can be when made with expert hands.
In order for an American Whiskey to be labeled a Rye Whiskey, it must have a mash content which is no less than fifty one percent rye. This separates it from Bourbon, and it is this which gives it its distinctive flavor and spiciness. Toffee, cinnamon, caraway, cloves and oak are typical tasting notes, and ‘straight rye’ whiskies - which are aged in charred oak barrels - take on plenty of the smokiness of the wood, adding a further, fascinating facet.
Rye Whiskey has its spiritual home in the northeastern states of Pennsylvania and Maryland, and cities like Pittsburgh produced vast quantities of Rye Whiskey in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most the old distilleries were closed during the prohibition era, after which time rye whiskey more or less disappeared completely, but the twenty-first century is seeing old recipes being resurrected and released to rave reviews.